Having spent the past three months criss-crossing Brazil, I’ve come to expect the unexpected. From the bars and beaches of romantic Rio de Janeiro to the awe-inspiring waterfalls of the borderlands at Foz do Iguacu, the wide-open wetlands teeming with wildlife in the Pantanal, and the colonial African street scenes in Bahia, Brazil has it all. With every bus that arrives late, every broken down truck, boat, and train, preparations go flying out the window, and are replaced with unforgettable experiences and memories.
The training that these experiences provide is indispensable. The best-laid plans, the most up-to-the-minute schedule, the carefully arranged timeline, all take a backseat to the local rules. Thirty minutes can mean three hours. A ticket to a particular destination might get you halfway there. You may even end up in the wrong town. These are the common setbacks encountered when traveling in South America, and Brazil is no different. What is different about Brazil is the sheer magnitude. Covering about half of the continent, there are mountains, deserts, beaches, and plains. Perhaps the most iconic image of Brazil is its largest feature – the Amazon. The world’s largest rainforest. The world’s biggest, and second longest river. The pinnacle of my voyage begins at the mouth of this legendary river and culminates in the heart of the rainforest, about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) upstream.
The city of Belem is the main port linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Amazon River. The boat trip to the city of Manaus, in the centre of the rainforest, takes about five days. This is where all of the training over the past months comes in. Delays, confined and crowded surroundings, heat, hunger, boredom. The ability to deal with these issues is essential to undertaking the trip upriver.
The boat, a three-level passenger ferry, has a handful of private cabins that offer privacy at night. For those with a little less money, or a flair for adventure there are two other options, both of which require a hammock. The luxury option is the air-conditioned hammock room. A small room located at the bow, shared by forty to fifty people, each sleeping in their own hammock. The air-conditioning draws rave reviews from fellow travelers. The amount of space in this room is even better. The third, and cheapest option is what came to be known as “the barn.” Having grown hardened throughout my travels, I decided on “going native.” I chose the third option because that is what the locals do. While I regretted the decision at first, having seen the luxury and comfort of the air-conditioned room, the barn gave me the memory of a lifetime.
I bought my very own hammock for about $20 in the Belem market, and stopped to browse the stalls selling pickled monkey heads, live snakes, multi-coloured jungle birds, and thousands of strange looking Amazonian fruits. I then headed for the harbour to board the ferry. Once there, I descended the steep, steel staircase to the bottom level of the boat, the barn, which would be my home for the next several days. At the stern was the boat’s engine. At the bow, the toilets and showers, which shared the same compartment. Running along the ceiling from one end to the other were metal rods, from which to hang hammocks. Luckily, I was early, and had the choice of which end to sleep closest to. The noise of the engines won out over the smell of the toilets. I hung my hammock from the rafters and ascended to the deck for some drinks while I awaited our departure.
After about two hours of Brazilian soap operas, local drinks, and watching people board the ferry, I went back downstairs to see how crowded it was. The kaleidoscope of hammocks was almost blinding. It was like an explosion at a Grateful Dead concert. Where, two hours ago, there had been thirty hammocks spread out across the boat, there were now four-hundred. It was a tie-dye web with the occasional pair of arms and legs sticking out. My hammock was nowhere to be seen, trapped in the middle of this swinging, rainbow-coloured abyss. I knew that all of my boat, bus, train, and truck rides to date would be nothing compared to this one.
Having spent the night on the deck drinking, talking, dancing, and making new friends, I decided to go to bed around midnight. Most of the passengers were already in bed, many having spent the entire day, evening, and night in their hammocks. The tangled web of hammocks was now full of bodies. The arms and legs formed a jungle of limbs that could not be navigated. I was relegated to the corrugated steel floor at the water’s edge. The floor was cold and hard, but spacious. The hammock was warm and soft, but crowded. For those who prefer privacy, the barn is not the ideal sleeping option. However, by the end of the journey, I had actually grown accustomed to touching shoulders with neighbours on each side, and staring up at the bulge of someone’s rear end, hanging about six inch away.
The trip actually did take “about five days.” Six, to be exact, which was a pleasant surprise. The food was tasty and filling. Cooked in water drawn straight from the river, it wasn’t overly healthy, and resulted in an epidemic sweeping the population on the boat. Choosing to sleep closer to the noise of the engine turned out to be a great decision. The challenges of the sleeping arrangements and health issues on the boat were made much easier to deal with by the friendly people sharing the cramped space, and the unforgettable views. Passing by, watching families on the shore who have been living off the gifts of the river, the same way for generations. The giant trees displaying their bright red fruits that support the colonies of beautiful songbirds. Looking out at the water and seeing the rounded, pink back and dorsal fin of a blind river dolphin breach the muddy, brown surface. These are the memories that stand out, made even more striking when compared to the challenges presented.
This is the epitome of Brazil, a land full of challenges, such as poverty, crime, and poor infrastructure. The happy, friendly people, the relaxed atmosphere, the astonishing sights, and the breathtaking views offset these challenges, making Brazil a land of stark contrast and incredible beauty.